A Leap of Faith

Explanation
This is a story I wrote for The Commuter, the weekly student paper at Linn-Benton Community College, in November of 1990, two months before I transferred to the University of Oregon. It was my original intent to write a feature on Oregon Bungee Masters, the business that organizes the jumping excursions, and on its customers. But once I got to the scene of the story, I decided I had to try a jump myself and write from the first-person point of view.

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Commuter

Forget every definition of fear and sheer terror you've ever understood. Forget all the laws of common sense, that tell you not to stand in front of a car going 75 miles per hour, touch a hot burner, or jump off a 175-foot bridge.

When I first became aquainted with Bungee Jumping, I thought it just another of those crazy California fads that people do for a little hype and 4-minute spots on "PM Magazine." When the recent Reebok commercial made Bungee jumping more popular, I boasted that I would do it if given the chance, a chance I would never get, not in Oregon anyway. But then we heard about a jump scheduled outside Eugene on Nov. 18, and it was time to put up or shut up.

The site was the Blue River Dam catwalk in Eastern Lane County, 200 or more feet above the ground — no water, just a rocky floor where the water of the McKenzie River used to be.

KCayce Dale is the guy in charge. I know little about him except from what I learned during a phone conversation with him a few weeks before. The setup is simple. Two harnesses, four bungee cords that each hold 1,500 lbs. The military uses them to drop tanks from planes.

"If you weigh more than a jeep or a tank you probably shouldn't try this. In fact if you weigh more than a jeep or a tank, I don't even want to know you," KCayce says during our short class on how to fall properly.

There are two methods, the swan dive and the backward fall, also known as the "elevator to Hell." The swan dive involves a forward leap out and away from the platform mounted on the catwalk railing. Then count to two and grab onto the shoulder straps to protect your face. It doesn't seem too difficult, assuming you can count while in freefall. I opt for the backward fall. Start out with hands across your chest on the shoulder straps, and leap away from the platform backwards. It's the safest way to go, and emotionally easier if you don't like looking down from great heights.

I'm still not completely convinced about the bungee cord. KCayce hands us a short piece of the stuff. My companion Chuck Hicks and I play tug-o-war and can barely feel a stretch. The bungee cord will not break. And if one does, there are three more there just like it. I am convinced.

"It's a real deep emotional reach for most people and they have to find the strength from within themselves," he says. "When you are ready, start couting down from five and the rest of us will join in from four. That's all the noise we'll make."

We are now ready to jump. A young Oregon State University woman whose friends call her "Anderson" is the first to go. She has made a three-jump reservation, and doesn't seem scared at all.

She leaps off from the platform and everyone — absolutely every one in the group of more than 40 jumpers and watchers — stare in stone cold-silence, until she starts her count. Off she goes like there was nothing to it, as if she was a regular. Everyone wants to know what its like, she has almost nothing to say.

At the end of each fall, Anderson bounces at the end of the cord like a yo-yo, and we can see her as she swings all the way to the other side of the catwalk. A rope is thrown down. She gets ahold of it and hooks in into her harness. About ten fellow jumpers pitch in to help pull her up.

KCayce says it's now my turn.

I leave my glasses with Chuck, and I wear the goggles attatched to the shoulder harness. The four-foot climb to the top of the platform is more difficult than I realized — I'm only four feet higher than before and I'm terrified. My steps to turn around are only inches in length. I am not a height person. Every move I make seems to take me closer to a premature fall. Everyone can see that I am scared past my wits. I will later be told that I sounded like a tired-out dog before the jump, and that my color matched that of Caspar the Friendly Ghost with a hangover. This is not my finest hour.

I close my eyes, since I can't see much anyway, and try to find the proper mental state to do this. There isn't one. My mind is clear, except for the fact that I eventually have to get this over with. My eyes are open, but I don't realy notice, because they have glazed over. All I see is an internal emptiness. I suddenly realize that I might be taking a long time to get off the platform.

I mutter "ok", presumably to myself, and KCayce's assistant Alex starts the count without me.

"Starting from five," he says. The rest of the group starts in, and I realize that if these people get to one and I am still on the platform, I am in some kind of trouble, or lost or at least embarrassed. They get to one and my legs make the leap without my permission. I am now out and away from the platform and falling at an ever increasing rate, and I haven't yet realized what I have done.

I see the platform, my last link to the real world fall away from me in a direction I had never I imagined I would see something fall. This is not reality.

In dreams I've had of falling, (you know, the kind we all have when you wake up before you hit and wake to find you've fallen out of bed) have all returned to here to haunt me. The feeling I had dreamed of was accurate, but only a millionth of the intensity I now feel. It is still frightening. I am frightened to a point I had never imagined possible, but I am still in control of myself. I am powerless to stop this fall, so I wait for it to end — for the ultimate "trust fall" to end, and I don't know when I will be caught.

Then it is over. During the fall, it seemed an eternity. But in the end it was not far enough. I could actually stand to fall further.

There is a misconception that the end of the fall produces a painful bouce effect. True, there is a bounce, but it is not painful, at least not until the next day. I know that I was too occupied to worry about pain, and instead had to deal with the underside of the catwalk I was about to hit. Some law of physics prevents me from hitting it, and I can now concentrate on getting ahold of the rope Alex will throw down to me. My only link with the world above me is the bungee cord, and I don't want to let go of it. I want only to hold onto something stable. My hands are glued to the cord.

The rope comes down, I reach for it and hook into my harness. I still try to hold onto the cord, until it goes slack and the rope starts to pull me back to the real world. I am still scared, but never more alive. I don't even like roller coasters, and I just fell roughly 200 feet, at a speed between 50 and 70 mph, and had lived to tell about it.

Now that it is over, I'm still shaking from the adrenaline shot. I will be high on adrenaline the rest of the day. I am now somehow different. There was life before the jump, and now there is only life after the jump. I hear applause from the group and hundreds of questions I cannot yet answer. I only tell the others that they are in for a living experience today. And it turns out to be different for everyone, something that can't really be explained in conversation.

I stay for a few more hours and watch others do spectacular flips with their jumps, and I don't feel at all envious. I had to find the strength to do this inside, and no one else was able to help me. On that platform was one solitary person who must ultimately made the final decision to go or not, and to produce the trust in the process to follow through, and leave life in the strands of four 3/4-inch cords.

On the way home down Highway 126, Chuck and I stop at a little place called Ike's Pizza for lunch. If you're ever in Leaburg, stop in at this place; the pizza is good and the service is homey. Bill Bixby used to fish the McKenzie River and left an autographed picture at the place. I want to talk about the jump, but I'm content to just sit and watch football while we eat. I want to calm down and the pizza helps. I'm not yet sure how I feel about the day, but I know I'll have to do this again.


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